To lead a moral life we’re better off without religion


Source: Prospect

A survey carried out in 2014 found that most people in Britain think that religion does more harm than good. Only a quarter think the opposite. But is the majority opinion correct? Certainly you can’t answer the question with a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation: inquisitions vs charitable hospitals, crusades vs almshouses, 9/11 vs campaigns against slavery, all totted up to give a final answer.

We need to clarify the question. Let’s not dig into history for an incalculable cost-benefit analysis. Let’s talk about the situation today, in the early 21st century, and the years ahead of us. Ours is a world more interconnected than it ever was, with the human race facing the greatest existential threats we ever have. At the same time we understand the universe and our place within it more fully than ever before. If the question is whether religion does more harm than good in our current global context, we begin to have something that looks answerable—at least in principle. The harms that religion can generate more effectively than any other—an “us and them” mentality, irrational and anti-scientific thinking—are undoubtedly more harmful in today’s precarious context than they ever were.

The old philosophers’ challenge to religion is as true today as it ever was: is there an example of a good deed done or an ethical proposition advanced by a religious person that could not be done or advanced by a non-religious person? There is none. But can you think of an example of a harm done by religion or a religious person that could only have been done in the name of that religion? There are many. Good people do good and bad people do harm, but for good people to do harm takes religion.

In the UK at least, as society has become increasingly non-religious, with laws built on secular principles of equality, human rights and freedom, we have seen increasing tolerance, mutual respect and social morality. We have become a less violent, less racist and more accommodating society than we were a couple of centuries ago, when religiosity was more widespread. We have become more critical of acts that harm others (like drink driving or rape) and less critical of acts that harm no-one (like consensual gay sex). Our moral scale is much improved.

“The social instincts—the prime principle of man’s moral constitution—with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule, ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise’; and this lies at the foundation of morality,’ said Charles Darwin. He was right—the remarkably consistent occurrence of the golden rule in human societies across time and nations demonstrates the irrelevance of religious or non-religious systems of thought derived from them. We treat others well, as the British psychologist Margaret Knight said, “because we are naturally social beings; we live in communities; and life in any community, from the family outwards, is much happier, and fuller, and richer if the members are friendly and co-operative than if they are hostile and resentful.” At a time when this realisation might be able to draw us together, it is being concealed by religions with their alternative narratives of commandments and extra-human validations of actions.

We see a vivid case of this with the example of the Roman Catholic church’s opposition to birth control and attempts to limits access to abortion internationally by American evangelicals. Almost no-one from outside an organised religion could possibly deem this activity moral: it brings massive human suffering. Only a religion would engage in the sort of international lobbying against sexual and reproductive health rights of men and women in which the Holy See engages—lobbying in defiance of all tests of harm but in obedience to religious authority.

The problems inherent in the ethics promoted by organised religions are particularly harmful in our century. Religions are drivers of sectarianism, multipliers of conflict, proponents of fossilised ethics and a fear-and-favour, sanction-driven moral authoritarianism. They distort our moral scale, producing harm where there need be none, uniquely divisive because of their great importance and extra-human reference points.

What we need is simple human compassion: love of our fellow humans, a commitment to make moral decisions based on evidence with the goal of human welfare, a determination to organise our affairs globally in a way that will increase freedom and fulfilment in the one life we know we have. Religion may sometimes be of assistance in this quest, but we can obtain what benefits it does bring in other ways and without the concomitant harm.

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